How watch brands like Hublot and Patek Philippe craft works of art

Some of the most important artists of the 20th century were horological enthusiasts. Picasso had a collection any Hodinkee reader would drool over – it included, among others, a Rolex GMT-Master, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Triple Date Moonphase and, for good measure, a Patek Philippe Triple Date Moonphase. Warhol was even more obsessed: he amassed a collection of 313 watches, including Rolexes, Patek Philippes, Piagets, and the various Cartiers he was known to wear (but not the wind). Even today, Hockney is rarely pictured without one of the many thin gold wristwatches peeking out from under his cardigan sleeves.

And yet, for many years, apart from artists dabbling as connoisseurs, the worlds of fine art and mechanical timepieces rarely crossed orbits. But that is rapidly changing as a new cultural and aesthetic convergence gains momentum. Jaeger-LeCoultre, for example, paid homage a few years ago to none other than Vincent van Gogh, adorning the dials of special edition Reversos with painstakingly rendered enamel reproductions of the Dutch Post-Impressionist’s works. (The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam even sold some in its gift shop.) Figures such as Seurat, Xu Beihong and Ferdinand Hodler were also celebrated on Reversos.

Today, some watchmakers collaborate directly with artists – a move that seemed downright revolutionary in 1986, when Keith Haring worked with Swatch to create four custom pieces for his Pop Shop. Today, we no longer just talk about £75 Swatches but rather six-figure creations that rise to the level of contemporary art themselves. Hublot has worked with Takashi Murakami, Richard Orlinski and Shepard Fairey, among others, on limited-edition reinterpretations of the brand’s iconic timepieces. Murakami’s latest creation features a see-through sapphire crystal case and a rotating smiling floral dial executed with 384 colored gemstones, costing £88,000 – a bargain, of sorts, considering what the works of the artist have brought home at auction over the years.

Luckily, you don’t need that kind of money to afford a wearable piece of art. Swatch now collaborates with MoMA, making affordable quartz watches adorned with works such as Klimt and Mondrian. Haring’s original Swatch models are no longer produced, but vintage examples on eBay can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a thousand pounds and more.

Art lovers and watch lovers are, of course, kindred spirits. The mediums may be different, but, as renowned collector and international art adviser Fabien Fryns explains, both elicit a unique admiration for the designer. “You can see the craftsman’s hand in a watch, just like you can see the artist’s hand in a painting,” he told me. “I don’t know of a major car collector who also has a large art collection; I’m sure there are, but I often come across art lovers who collect watches, and vice versa.

The ultimate sign of true convergence, there is a new appetite for showing watches as art, taking them from the wrists to the windows of major cultural institutions. I speak from experience. I was recently approached to help a major collector prepare his collection – primarily Patek Philippes – for an exhibition. The show would not take place in a hotel or private club, as many watchmaking gatherings often are, but at the Design Museum in London, where the watches would be exhibited as the works of art they are. .

While Patek Philippe has held international exhibitions, this will be the first time that a private collection consisting primarily of wristwatches from the premier manufacturer will be displayed in a museum. I hope it won’t be the last. As the collector pointed out, “People have been exhibiting their art collections for years, centuries, so why not look at collections?”

To put it another way: don’t be surprised if, in a few years, you’ll be asking the Met for directions to find the Hall of Hyped-Up Horology.

A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue with the title “Excuse Me, Is That a Murakami on Your Wrist?”

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